Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Are intentional communities the new exclusionary zoning?

In the 20th century, people who were racist or classist would write zoning laws to keep certain other people from moving into their neighborhood.  Civil rights legislation has struck down most race-based discrimination, at least on paper, though not entirely in practice.  However, zoning codes that mandate minimum lot sizes, maximum densities, or maximum number of occupants continue to exclude people on economic grounds. 

Shared housing in theory is a workaround, as a group living together has more buying power.  However, at least in the Bay Area, where even shared housing spots are in short supply, the application and interview process done by existing residents can make it even harder for people who are not of a certain social class or culture to get housing. 

Unlike an apartment building manager, who is bound by housing laws that apply when separate apartments or SRO's are leased, someone seeking roommates has much greater discretion to choose who they want to live with - understandably. 

Housing wanted / housing offered ads often will list things such as
- favorite bands
- where people work
- food preferences
- politics
- emotional traits

Sometimes it's just things such as "Likes quiet" or "No drugs" but occassionally it goes into territory such as "Positively directed" or "World shifters".  Some of the highest profile communities such as The Embassy or the Sandbox House have explicit goals to be not just a place to eat and sleep but also a collaborative space for people to share ideas. 

In San Francisco, there are about 2 residents per house or apartment.  Last year, however, the city gained 10,600 residents but only 1,900 apartments.  As most new apartments are 1 or 2 bedroom, most of this increase is being absorbed by people doubling or tripling up. 

Will applying for housing eventually be like applying for college?
There is a potential that even as shared housing advocates work to remove exclusionary zoning barriers, they will create new forms of exclusion based on their member application and interview process.  I only know of two cases where there is member intake free of judgement by existing residents.  One is the Berkeley Student Cooperative, which has over 1,200 members in 20 houses averaging 30-60 people in size.  The other was a punk house. 

I'm not sure what a solution to this might be, as in a small (under 10 people) community, each person is a critical part.  But maybe this is one of those housing problems that is really part of a bigger societal problem, in this case, a widening gap between social classes.